By Ben Horney
49 years ago today, the Knicks, with little fanfare, signed their second round draft pick -- a 22-year old big man out of Grambling State named Willis Reed. With the first overall pick in the same draft, New York had taken 6'8" Jim Barnes out of Texas Western College. At the time, not even the Knicks knew how significantly the state of their franchise was about to change.
In the following day's New York Times, Reed's name was mentioned only one time, in the eighth paragraph of the story. It was Barnes whom the Knicks expected to lend the most help in ending their five-season playoff drought, but Reed quickly became one of the most storied players in franchise history.
Reed had dominated in college. A two-time All-American, he scored 2,280 total points in his career and, as a senior, averaged an whopping 26.6 points and 21.3 rebounds per game. Behind Reed's leadership, Grambling won one NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) title and three Southwestern Athletic Conference Championships.
Despite being taken with the first pick of the second round (eighth overall) in the NBA draft, Reed wasted no time introducing himself as one of the best players in the game. He earned the NBA's Rookie of the Year Award, averaging 18.5 points (seventh in the league) and 13.9 rebounds (fifth in the league) per game in his first season. His rookie year even included a spectacular 46-point outburst against the Lakers in March (the second highest total ever by a Knicks rookie).
He was also selected to the All-Star team, the first of seven All-Star appearances he would make throughout his career. Even though they failed to make the playoffs, the combination of Reed and Barnes helped the Knicks improve their record by nine victories in their rookie season.
It wasn't until Reed's third season that the Knicks playoff dry spell finally ended. During that regular season, Reed averaged 20.9 points and 14.6 rebounds per game. In the playoffs, he upped his points per game to 27.5, although the Knicks were ousted by the Boston Celtics in the first round. Reed's Knicks steadily improved each season thereafter, until they finally reached their apex in 1969-70.
That season saw the Knicks win a franchise record 60 games and set a then-single-season NBA record by winning 18 consecutive games. All of this happened under the dutiful leadership of Reed, who spent the season collecting accolades that put him on par with the best players in league history; along with being named to the All-NBA and All-Defensive first teams, Reed became the first player in league history to win the All-Star MVP, the regular season MVP and the NBA Finals MVP in one season. But it was a game in which he scored only four points that truly cemented Reed's legacy.
A torn thigh muscle suffered in Game 5 had forced Reed to sit out Game 6 of the Finals against Lakers, and he was not expected to play in Game 7. But to the shock and delight of the Madison Square Garden crowd, Reed limped out of the tunnel during warmups, ready to play. He scored the Knicks' first two field goals and played 27 total minutes, as the Knicks captured their first title.
Reed would win another Finals MVP and lead the Knicks to one more championship before nagging injuries forced his career to end prematurely. In 10 seasons with the Orange and Blue, Reed averaged 18.7 points and 12.9 rebounds per game during the regular season, and 17.4 points and 10.3 rebounds per game in the playoffs.
He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1983, and was voted one of the "50 Greatest Players in NBA History" in 1997. It's been 39 years since he last suited up to play basketball for the Knicks, but he'll forever be one of the most revered players in team history.